Archaeologists and music experts believe they have found the remains of the earliest stringed instrument ever found in Western Europe – dating to more than 2,300 years ago – at the excavation of Uamh An Ard Achadh (High Pasture Cave) on the Island of Skye.

The artefact had been broken and burnt, but the notches where strings would have been placed are easy to distinguish.

The original fragment is the burnt remains of a 2,300-year-old bridge from a lyre instrument found on the island of Skye

Music archaeologists Dr Graeme Lawson and Dr John Purser studied the fragment which was recovered from the rake-out deposits of a large slab-built hearth outside the cave entrance.

Dr Lawson, of Cambridge Music-archaeological Research, said: “For Scotland – and indeed all of us in these islands – this is very much a step change. It pushes the history of complex music back more than a thousand years, into our pre-history. And not only the history of music but more specifically of song and poetry, because that’s what such instruments were very often used for.”

The earliest known lyres date from about 5,000 years ago, in what is now Iraq: and these were already complicated and finely-made structures. But in Europe even Roman traces proved hard to locate, with many references and images but no actual remains.

The location of the find is exciting in itself, as here is an object which places the Hebrides, and by association the neighbouring mainlands, in a musical relationship not only with the rest of the Barbarian world but also with famous civilisations. It now becomes a world that was held together not just by technology and trade but also by something as ephemeral and wonderful as music and poetry and song.

The mysterious cave

High Pasture Cave on the island of Skye is one of an entirely new category of archaeological site – shedding light on the life, death and thinking of Iron Age people. It’s marked by fire and feasting. In mid-winter, sacrifices of as many as 50 piglets could be made, their bones deposited in the cave, along with many other gifts for the gods. But there was also death here, in this cave with its underground stream. The bones of a woman, a very young baby and a foetus were offered up, covered by stones on a ritual stairway to the depths. The foetal bones had been mixed with the bones of a fetal pig. Isotope analysis even showed that the woman and the babies were related.

Archaeologist Steven Birch who co-directs the site commented that, “Access to the natural cave at High Pastures was of prime importance to the people using the site and throughout its use the entrance was modified on several occasions which included the construction of a stone-built stairwell. Descending the steep and narrow steps, the transition from light to dark transports you out of one world into a completely different realm, where the human senses are accentuated. Within the cave, sound forms a major component of this transformation, the noise of the underground stream in particular producing a calming environment.”

“The discovery of the wooden bridge from the musical instrument”, he added “represents a fitting end to the excavations at the site and conjures up a vivid image of the past, showing people gathering together for religious ceremonies, feasting on pig and cattle and drinking to the accompaniment of music.”

The sounds of the past

In 2006, 80 fragments of bone and antler were uncovered, the majority typical of Iron Age domestic assemblages, such as points, pins, needles, handles and fittings. But there was also a number of unusual finds consisting of a cache of seven bone/antler points, their tips showing polish and fine circumferential wear. The wear pattern was unusual and the only comparanda were for tuning pegs for lyres, the wear arising from the movement of the strings. These are a highly unusual find, but there is a similar example from Cnip, Lewis (Hunter 2006, 147-8, fig 3.24a).

Seven antler lyre tuning pegs found in 2006.

The deposits from which the bridge was recovered date to between 450 to 550BCE, which may fit with the tuning pegs recovered in a cache from Bone Passage dating to around 500BCE. A tentative reconstruction of the bridge fragment would indicate a six-stringed instrument, while the cache of tuning pegs also contained seven pegs. So, there is potentially more than one instrument deposited at this site.

Replica Lyre played

On the reconstructed instrument that Graeme is playing it is the bridge that is the replica – the design of the lyre shape and form is based on a much older date and we still do not know what the full instrument would have looked like.